Saudi Arabia relieved as well-protected haj nears close
By Amena Bakr
MENA Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia breathed a sign of relief on Monday as the haj pilgrimage neared its close without the militant attacks or deadly epidemics that threatened to upset the huge annual Muslim journey of faith.
The kingdom said this year's tighter security and sanitary precautions had paid off, allowing 2.085 million pilgrims to visit Mecca and other holy sites in safety this year, just slightly higher than the 1.98 million pilgrims last year.
The haj, a hectic journey that draws Muslims from around the world, had been tinged with concerns about the Ebola epidemic and possible militant attacks, especially after Saudi Arabia joined a U.S.-led alliance against Islamic State militants and participated in air strikes against targets in Syria.
The pilgrimage, which culminates in the three-day feast of Eid al-Adha, officially ends on Tuesday. Security has been much tighter than in previous years, with more checkpoints on roads to the holy sites and more special forces deployed there.
"Everything went as planned ... and security was at its best situation," said Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki.
"I'm pleased to announce that this year's haj was free from epidemic diseases," acting Saudi Health Minister Adel Faqih told a news conference in Mena.
Saudi Arabia enforced control this year by cracking down on domestic pilgrims traveling to holy sites without permits, Turki said. That helped keep the number of pilgrims well below the 3.2 million who packed Islam's holiest sites in 2012.
"We worked well on illegal pilgrims staying inside the kingdom, dealing with such illegal cases the number of pilgrims was reduced," Turki said. Continued...